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“I think we can win this battle against populism. But it’s not going to be easy”

 
Foreign minister Anders Samuelsen argues that while globalisation and the EU are under threat and need to be protected, overlooking their flaws will only strengthen populism

When Liberal Alliance was first elected to parliament in 2011, they openly admitted that they had no foreign policy platform. So it came as a surprise to many when their leader, Anders Samuelsen, was appointed foreign minister in December.

But speaking at a press briefing on Friday, Samuelsen said he felt compelled to take the role to address the major challenges that are posed by growing populist forces in the West.

“We are facing a fight between populist [answers], and more difficult answers to difficult questions. I think that if we are not able to solve this situation and give the right answers to these questions, then we will face really big troubles over the next three to five years. That goes for the European community, for NATO for transatlantic cooperation.”

Answering these questions means challenging the status quo, he added, both in how we do politics, and cooperate internationally.

“[Only] then we will be able to convince the broad majority of the population that free trade is good, that globalisation is good, that working together is better than only working bilaterally, that it’s good to work in multilateral discussions, that its good to have international rule of law.”

Samuelsen argues that one way to sell globalisation to a disenchanted population, is to demonstrate to the older generations the opportunities that globalisation has given the younger generation and which we risk losing if populism succeeds in rolling back globalisation.

“If we are able to have a broad and respectful debate [between the generations] I think we can win this battle against populism. But it’s not going to be easy – it’s going to be very difficult and demand of us that we don’t meet populism with arrogance. It’s important that we understand that populism is the first answer to real problems.”

Samuelsen spent the first decade of his political career in the Danish and European parliaments representing the Social Liberal Party, which he left in 2007 to form the New Alliance party. He became leader when the party renamed itself Liberal Alliance in 2009, and guided them to win five percent of the vote in the 2011 election. Four years later, they increased their share of the vote to 7.5 percent, when the right-wing ‘red’ bloc regained control of parliament.

Samuelsen wants to be seen as a competent and ambitious foreign minister. But he is also somewhat unconventional, given his scepticism towards the EU that breaks with a strong cross-aisle pro-EU tradition by the Danish Foreign Ministry.

While his party certainly believes in the benefits of globalisation and free trade, they are also wary of losing sovereignty in the process. This is why the party urged a ‘no’ vote at the 2015 referendum on replacing Denmark’s opt-out of EU justice and policing cooperation, with an opt-in. They argued that the opt-in procedure was risky because it would allow parliament to join more areas of EU cooperation that give up Danish sovereignty, but without first holding a referendum, which is currently required.

Samuelsen explained that he is a firm believer of the core values of the European community – free trade, freedom and the peace project – but he wants to keep the EU as a cooperation of nation states. So when he sees efforts to transform the EU into a federalist union at the cost of member states, he says it is important to speak up.

“I think it’s important that we don’t put ourselves in a situation where we are afraid of debating [the EU because we worry people will think] we are against it,” Samuelsen said.

“The LA stance toward the EU is that we are a believer in the core values of the European community, but think it’s important to criticise it when its needed, because if we don’t do that it opens up the path to populism.”

It’s the sort of anti-EU populism that arguably propelled the British decision to leave the EU last year. Negotiations for a post-EU settlement between the EU and the UK are expected to get underway in March and risk being messy – the UK wants to trade with the EU and have complete control over its borders, but being a full member of the EU Single Market requires allowing free movement.

“I have to work in the interest of Danes and Danish companies [so] it’s not a good idea to have a situation where the Brits are allowed full entrance to the free market, but where we meet trade barriers, so we need a balanced deal and I think that’s possible,” Samuelsen said.

With a small, open economy, Denmark is especially reliant on EU membership to meet its trade, labour and security needs. With Russian antagonism in the East, and a US administration that regards the EU as a trade competitor rather than partner, I asked whether Samuelsen thought more should be done to promote to the Danish public the benefits of EU membership?

“Today I’ve tried to tell you the full story about what’s really important – getting support among young people for the peace project, the free trade project of the EU – but also the critiques. If I’m only quoted for the criticism, the issue isn’t that we are not trying to tell the positive story. But if, then, I only tell positive stories out of fear that you will only pick up on criticisms, that’s also a problem. I end up in a situation where people don’t believe me because they know there is something to criticise,” he said.

“I still hope I am able to tell, not least, the younger generation of what is good and bad about the EU and convince them to support it. What we’ve seen after Brexit is an increase in support for the EU and that’s good.”

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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